AMC CVT-3030 integrated amplifier
Let's see...how about taking your castor oil, or eating your spinach, or bundling up when you go out in the cold...or practicing safe sex? Naw, too obvious. How about convincing audiophiles to buy a low-powered amplifier? That's tough alright, but how about a real challenge? Let's go for a low-powered integrated amp. That's better. How about an imported low-powered hybrid integrated amp with tubes and tone controls? That's really tough. Maybe too tough--let's balance it out by making the amp cheap! Yeah, that's the assignment.
Mid-fi price & features
At just under $900, the AMC CVT-3030 appears to be a new product from a new company aimed squarely at the mid-fi market. An integrated amplifier with tone controls certainly doesn't appear to be targeted at the High End. Or is it? While the name is new, the underlying "company"—the 25-year-old IEEE Group from Taipei—is anything but. IEEE has been doing OEM work for years for such household brand names as NAD, a/d/s/, and Luxman. The amp was designed by Peter Bath, who has worked for NAD, Dolby, and AR. Given this wealth of experience, AMC isn't really new at all.
The 3030's resemblance to NAD equipment is striking. The black (or silver) front of the 3030 is 17" W by 4.5" H, with a smaller rectangle recessed into the faceplate containing all of the controls. Odd among these were bass and treble tone controls, bypassable via the Direct/Normal/Phones switch. There is no balance control; instead, left- and right-channel gain is set with dual-concentric, or ganged, volume knobs.
At the rear of the unit are the expected outputs for tape and speakers (4 or 8 ohms, five-way, gold-plated binding posts), as well as three convenience AC outlets. The combination of a headphone jack, tone controls, and convenience outlets should make the unit more familiar to the typical mid-fi buyer. These same features will tend to be viewed negatively by the typical high-ender. On the other hand, the typical mid-fier will be very surprised to find output tubes in this modestly sized integrated amplifier. Price and features point to the mass market, while the NAD-like appearance, naming conventions, and tubes make it clear that the AMC is also aimed clearly at the High End as well. Can it possibly satisfy both?
The AMC CVT-3030 is a one-piece box of reasonable dimensions, not too heavy or bulky. Even though it has two fans, these are effectively invisible and inaudible. There are ample inputs, including one for phono (MM). Everything is clearly laid out and easy to understand and use. Installation is simple; the unit will not intimidate any potential purchaser. For my auditioning, I used the 3030 in multiple setups, including my reference system, and dragged it along to a number of friends' houses. In every case, it performed flawlessly.
While the 3030 has tubes (from Siemens, no less), most people were unaware of it. There was no start-up cycle, biasing requirements, or visible tube presence. Since the tubes themselves are soldered directly to replaceable boards, the tweaks among us will be frustrated. You simply can't experiment with different tubes. Nor can you use the preamp and amp portions as separate units, as was the case with the lovely little NAD 3020 and its pre–power jumpers on the rear panel.
The AMC is not intended for tweakers, but to bring the sonic splendor of tubes to the average music lover in a convenient package. In this regard, it has succeeded admirably. Of course, I would have preferred an MC phono stage, but with cartridges such as the Sumiko Blue Points, various Grados, and even Sam Tellig's beloved Shures, this shouldn't pose an inordinate problem for most listeners. After all, there is a phono stage. But, for all us audiophiles, the unit runs in class-A.
I believe that truly satisfying systems can be assembled for very reasonable prices. This assertion is always made in conjunction with the listing of recommended components. As proof, I mated the AMC CVT-3030 with a Rotel 955 CD player and a pair of PSB Alpha speakers for a recent East Coast meeting of The Audiophile Network. The overall performance of this system was wonderful—period. I'm convinced that those attending this meeting, if blindfolded, would have estimated its price as four or five times greater than it was. Since the Rotel and PSBs have already received extensive praise in the pages of Stereophile, you know that I'm about to lavish a similar level of praise on this wonderfully satisfying amp. The CVT-3030 offered superb performance for the price, with a bevy of features thrown in.
Sonically, the major asset of the 3030 was a near total lack of additive colorations (with the exception of the uneven lower treble). Sonic errors were generally those of omission and were, in my opinion, relatively easy to deal with. The 3030 had a punchy midbass, good overall clarity, and a fine sense of rhythmic integrity. The midrange was a satisfactory mix of detail and body. Soundstaging was large, especially in terms of width. Dynamics were acceptable, and power handling was pleasantly surprising, given the 30Wpc specification.
Before Audio Research, Jadis, Conrad-Johnson, Melos, Quicksilver, Audible Illusions, Cary, and a host of others begin to worry, the wonderful little AMC unit does fall short of the state of the art. For under a grand, the level of overall performance was wonderful but it was certainly not up to the level of separates costing many thousands more. Using live music as a reference revealed the CVT-3030 to have a number of shortcomings.
The major area in which the 3030 fell short of the best concerned the re-creation of the original recording space. Depth was foreshortened, making it more difficult to sense the halls or clubs where recordings were made. Width was somewhat odd, with more sounds coming out of the speakers themselves, or from center stage, with a less realistically continuous spread from left to right. The sense of spaciousness was also diminished, with less air, fewer echoes, less reflected sound, and decreased ambience. All of these effects were more pronounced in the Normal mode with the tone controls in the circuit. While the shortcomings were still present, they were less problematic using the Direct mode, which bypasses the tone controls. All of these soundstaging/ambience shortcomings were evident on Midori's excellent Live at Carnegie Hall (Sony SK 46742). They were equally evident on the artificial QSound-created space of Roger Waters's Amused to Death (Columbia CK 47127).
On the other side of the coin, the overall perspective through the AMC tended to be a satisfying mid-hall one. While performers were not ideally placed left to right and front to back, they were stable and did not wander or have vague locations. The different perspectives of large halls and small clubs were always obvious, if not necessarily realistic. While the sense of spaciousness was diminished, the overall sound was not closed-down or lifeless. On the Waters CD, all of the unusual QSound effects were there, with sounds placed well out in the listening room. On the Midori, it was clear that the recording was live, but the dimensionality of Carnegie Hall simply wasn't re-created.
A second area where the AMC fell short of the best was in dynamics. While it sounded fine at low or high volume levels (eg, Tom Cochrane's Mad Mad World, Capitol CDP 97723), it failed to fully re-create the complete palette of dynamic contrasts. Subtle volume changes were obscured on recordings such as the Midori or Waters. The little 30-watter was clearly able to play loudly, even with moderately efficient speakers. What was missing were many of the tiny shifts in level that provide music with much of its emotion. A good example was Sir Adrian Boult's interpretation of Pomp and Circumstance (Concert Favorites, Chesky CD53). If the volume was set high enough for realistic peaks, the softer passages were too loud. Conversely, if the volume was set for realistic re-creation of the quieter passages, the peaks were severely restricted.
A third area of criticism concerned the resolution and richness of midrange detail. While never thin, analytical, or transistor-like, the CVT-3030 was neither rich nor lush. It exhibited neither a typical tubelike nor a MOSFET character. Harmonics were good but never great; detail resolution was good but not outstanding. Once again, the Midori CD provided an effective illustration of these shortcomings. Midori's violin lacked the harmonic richness that was indeed captured on this excellent recording. The sounds of the performers and audience moving about and physically being there were much harder to pick out, or missing entirely.
Throughout the frequency range, information was somewhat obscured. Returning to the Elgar, it became more difficult to pick out the harp through the midrange, or triangle strokes or cymbal decay in the treble. On Mendelssohn's The Hebrides from the Boult recording, the percussive body of the timpani was somewhat lightweight in the bass. The deep bass was moderately attenuated, but this was psychoacoustically offset by a slight midbass emphasis. With recordings already heavy in the midbass (such as The Jayhawks' Hollywood Town Hall, Def American 26829-2), there was a tendency toward boom or bloat. In this area, the 3030 had a very tubelike sound.
Oddly, the treble occasionally became a bit harsh and edgy—not at all tubelike. This was heard in the cymbals from both the Boult and Cochrane recordings, as well as in Midori's violin. Like the bass, the treble was attenuated at the extreme top, but uneven or elevated somewhere below that. While this list of criticisms may appear lengthy, I want to reiterate that my comments are made in comparison to live music. Looked at another way, these criticisms are all qualified with words like "slight" or "moderate." At the 3030's price, I would have expected the shortcomings to be far more severe, with qualifiers like "prominent" or "intrusive."
For just under $900, the AMC CVT-3030 attempts to do for tubes what the venerable NAD 3020 did for solid-state. While it isn't a state-of-the-art contender, the AMC CVT-3030 is very likely to please a large number of music-loving audiophiles. It is a wonderful little surprise and a great buy at the price.